Dave Pollard's chronicle of civilization's collapse, creative works and essays on our culture.
A trail of crumbs, runes and exclamations along my path in search of a better way to live and make a living, and a better understanding of how the world really works.



July 29, 2010

How a Community-Based Co-op Economy Might Work

Filed under: How the World Really Works,Preparing for Civilization's End — Dave Pollard @ 23:15

Most people have been brought up to believe that the competitive, grow-or-die, absentee-shareholder-owned, “free”-trade “market” economy is the only one that works, the only alternative to a socialist, government-run economy. This myth is perpetrated in business and other schools, by the media, by accountants and lawyers and bankers and, of course, in the business world. This amoral-capitalist economic model has “succeeded” in the same hostile way our species has “succeeded” — by brutally suppressing, starving for resources, using power to steal from, and, when all else fails, killing off anything deemed a “competitor” or threat to its monopoly on power and resources. It relies on massive subsidies and near-zero interest rates thanks to well-rewarded political cronies, on political graft and corruption worldwide, on oligopoly and restraint of competition, on wage slavery and worker ignorance, on phony money and unrepayable debt, and on advertising, human insecurity, ego and greed to create an artificial demand for its shoddy, overpriced crap. And, on top of all that, it’s utterly unsustainable.

For an alternative, natural economy to work, we either have to wait for this amoral-capitalist economy to collapse (which it will, but probably not for a few decades), or we have to plant the seeds for this alternative economy in the cracks where the current one is already failing most badly — at the community level where the economy is most obviously failing to produce meaningful work, sucking resources, wealth and opportunity out, and dumping mass-produced and imported crap that ends up in the landfill, and pollutants in our air, water, soil and food that make us sick and contribute to climate change. But before we can plant these seeds we need to unlearn the nonsense we’re taught and told about economics, and learn how a healthy economy actually works.

Perhaps the best way to explain this is by showing models that contrast the features of the amoral-capitalist economy with those of a cooperative natural economy. Let’s start by looking at two enterprises, a traditional amoral-capitalist one and a cooperative natural one:

Amoral Capitalist Enterprise

The diagram above is a slightly cynical but not unfair depiction of how most entrepreneurs taught amoral capitalist economics start and run their businesses (and I advised hundreds of them, so I’m not making this up):

  1. It all starts, sadly, with the entrepreneur’s dream that s/he has a better idea, something that the “market” will love as much as s/he does. It’s likely to be something that competes with products or services already offered by established companies, but somehow “differentiated” from them. It’s also likely to be a one-person enterprise to start, and a one-boss enterprise thereafter. Businesspeople who try to do it all themselves are almost sure to overstress themselves, make fatal mistakes, hate most of what they do, and fail, often early and spectacularly.
  2. Advised by “professionals” who went to the same business schools, the entrepreneur sets up the company as a for-profit corporation, borrows heavily (and expensively) for “start-up” costs, and then hunts for sources for materials and labour to make his/her products and services. It’s quite possible that investors, seeing this as a high-risk investment, will want a large return (high interest rate) and equity position (controlling interest, especially if profit and growth targets are not met) in return for that risk. Once production is started, the company needs to fund customer receivables, inventories, capital equipment, and lots of start-up expenses. Its balance sheet is scary, with no resilience if there are sudden changes in the economy or market, and with a ton of money tied up and no room for error.
  3. Now our poor entrepreneur has to go head-to-head with established competitors to try to attract customers. S/he will often spend an enormous amount on marketing and advertising to do so. The debts pile up, and little has been sold yet. Our entrepreneur is not sleeping well.
  4. The idea will now either pay off, or not. Chances are, with incumbents willing and able to take discounts to fend off new competitors, our entrepreneur will not make profit and growth targets. The business might be shut down and liquidated by unhappy lenders and investors, or taken over and the entrepreneur ousted. Or, more simply, it will just run out of cash, and/or make a few naive, fatal decisions.
  5. But just maybe it beats the odds and succeeds. Now it has to meet grueling annual growth and profitability targets to meet the investors’ demand for a very high rate of return on their investment, to compensate for the heavy risk they took.
  6. And if it grows it will start to attract the attention of large corporate competitors, which can use their money and position for dozens of usually-effective tactics to crush this upstart. And if it still succeeds, they will shrug, sigh, and make the entrepreneur an offer s/he can’t refuse. The exhausted entrepreneur will usually take the money and run. And either retire, or start all over again (probably not as successfully) with another idea.

This unhappy process explains why most traditional enterprises fail, and why the biggest companies in most industries form collusive oligopolies that control the market, the politicians, and the media, and become “too big to fail” (so if they do screw up, the government — the taxpayer — bails them out).

It has evolved this way for simple Darwinian reasons. It’s what works when the “market” is given some simple (amoral, dysfunctional) rules to operate and is then left to its own resources. It’s a Frankenstein monster, but it was inevitable.

Now let’s look at how a community-based, cooperative economy could work, if it were made up of natural enterprises that “flew under the radar” of the corporate giants, and used a completely different set of processes and rules to get established and operate:

Cooperative Natural Enterprise

  1. Our natural entrepreneurs don’t try to do everything alone, and they don’t decide what their offering is to be until they’ve done their market research and identified something in the local community that is needed, and not being met by established companies. As our economy starts to fall apart, such opportunities might be present in just about any essential sector:
    • A food co-op, that grows and distributes local, organic foods using permaculture or other sustainable methods (i.e. not dependent on monoculture, wage slave employees, massive oil-based chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and massive irrigation).
    • A co-op on the Mondragon model that makes and repairs high-quality, durable, customized clothing from local, sustainable materials.
    • An energy co-op that establishes, augments and manages the collective renewable energy of the community.
    • Building and furniture co-ops that construct and refurbish buildings and furniture using local materials and labour.
    • A housing co-op that builds and co-manages homes and community common spaces for its members and the community at large.
    • A local water and water resources stewardship co-op.
    • Information, media and technology co-ops that collect, store and disseminate information to the community.
    • Theatre, art and recreational co-ops that help the community realize that entertaining yourself is more enjoyable, engaging and fulfilling than consuming packaged entertainment produced elsewhere.
    • You get the idea.
  2. Now, in a process called Peer Production, the local people interested in becoming suppliers, customers or investors of the offering that will fill the unmet need from step 1 above, self-organize and become partners in the enterprise, and co-design the offering to meet their specific needs. This is not rocket science; the reason it isn’t done in traditional economy companies is that it doesn’t scale well up to the multi-national level that traditional enterprises need to grow to to continue to exist.
  3. The partners now decide which of them will work how many hours in the enterprise and what they will be paid (dependent on their time availability, personal income needs, and the needs of the enterprise — but with little differential between highest and lowest hourly rate, and with an appreciation that the enterprise is not for-profit and must manage its costs prudently).
  4. They will also decide how much short-term working capital they need (likely to be much less than a traditional enterprise requires, for reasons that will become apparent in a moment), how much the existing partners are willing to invest, and how much they’ll need to obtain from the local Credit Union (which is another local community-based co-op), and what rate of return on investment they will offer (since the product is being made by its potential customers to meet an unfilled need, the risk is low, and so is the needed rate of return). Based on these calculations, they will be able to set a zero-profit price for their offering, and confirm with potential customers that this is viable before even thinking about production.
  5. Now the partners can pre-order, and prepay the cost of, the offering that they have co-designed to meet their requirements. Additional customers may be brought in at this stage on the same basis. There are no receivables and no unpaid inventory to have to worry about, or to finance. And the Credit Union which is a partner in the co-op will actually buy the equipment and then lease it to the co-op, knowing that the risk of the enterprise failing is low (and hence the lease payments will carry a low risk premium) — so there is no equipment on the balance sheet either, and no need for capital financing. The enterprise begins its life almost entirely debt-free, and stays that way. And the equity is the partners’ — the workers’ — not that of some absentee outside group demanding huge returns, growth and profitability.
  6. Finally, the offering is produced to the customers who have already bought and paid for it. No expenditure is needed for advertising or marketing, and there is no need for the enterprise to grow, or to earn a profit (just enough to cover its costs). The balance sheet is small and lean, giving the enterprise resilience to deal with changes in the economy and market. Because it’s local, it creates local employment, respects local customs, is better for the environment, and minimizes transportation and other distribution costs. Everybody wins.

As co-operatives of many different types have found, the hard part in doing all this is the re-learning of what collaborative enterprise is all about. It takes a lot of practice, but it’s a natural human endeavour. There are excellent facilitators who can help with enterprise formation, the basics of peer production, invitation (of people in the community to identify and explore unmet needs), consensus, and conflict resolution. Most lawyers, accountants, bankers and traditional consultants should be used as little as possible, since they tend to perpetrate the traditional economy myths and lack the information and experience to know what’s needed in cooperative, natural enterprises. In time a new school of professionals practiced in the natural economy will emerge — I’ve heard that Credit Unions in Germany, for example, now offer “turnkey” financing packages for local wind and solar energy co-ops, complete with training.

As we relearn how to make a living for ourselves, we will be able to help each other out, and establish networks and alliances to share skills, knowledge and resources. I can imagine the growth of a Gift Economy (or what I call a Generosity Economy) blossoming in the abundance of appreciation, know-how, saved time and strengthened relationships that a cooperative natural economy engenders. With time, a community might be able to wean itself off dependence on the amoral-capitalist economy entirely, so that when that economy collapses it will already have made the transition to a steady-state natural economy, and be in a position to help other, unprepared communities with the terrible struggles they will then face.

It’s entirely possible, if we have the will to do it. I see it starting to happen already in some progressive communities that have Transition Initiatives underway. But I have a sense that it will take a few more economic, energy and ecological seismic shocks before many will wake up to the need to find a better way to live and make a living. I’m not sure it won’t be too late by then, but, if we’re in time, we’ll have some models and communities to show us the way.

July 26, 2010

Living in Another World

Filed under: Our Culture / Ourselves — Dave Pollard @ 10:01

primal-strand-emeralds-at-the-edge-andy-wright

photo: Primal Strand, from the book Emeralds at the Edge by Andy Wright

What does it mean to “walk away from civilization culture”? Essentially, it means no longer accepting its messages or its worldview, and, as much as possible, no longer participating in it as a “consumer”, “reader”, “viewer”, “listener”, “citizen” or “employee”. Because this culture is now global and ubiquitous, there is no escape from it, so walking away means living on the Edge of it.

I have had the good fortune to survive and benefit from civilization culture, so walking away from it now, for me, is easy. For most, it takes courage, knowledge, and a bit of sacrifice. And I don’t blame or disparage those who still live within its clutches — for most there is no real choice.

When I walked away from civilization culture, I disconnected myself from everyone who is still caught up in that culture, still believes in it, depends on it and thinks it’s real. It’s not something you can do half way: When I rejected the culture, I rejected it entirely. So:

  • I no longer believe anything I read in the mainstream media — I realize it’s all distraction or propaganda, even though some of it is earnest and well-intended. When people ask me my opinion on something they’ve read or heard in the media, I have to explain that it’s nonsense, meaningless, a ridiculous oversimplification, intended to produce comfort and complacency, or simply to entertain. It’s hard to say this without hurting people’s feelings or sounding arrogant, but it’s impossible to weasel out of telling people that they’re idiots to be paying any attention to this crap, that’s it’s completely disconnected from reality, from what’s really going on in the world. Then people want to know (if they’re still talking to me after this) how it got that way, and why I’m so sure it’s wrong. What can I tell them? — It’s too hard to explain this and re-educate someone in less than a few hours.
  • I no longer relate to what the entertainment industry, including popular writers and artists, are producing. The New Yorker magazine, for example, recently published its “20 Under 40″ feature — short stories by 20 leading writers under the age of 40. The stories are, almost without exception, about people living and struggling in competitive civilization culture. How can intelligent young people still be preoccupied with the tedium of wage-slave work and the bar scene and the banality of consumerist life, when our civilization culture is collapsing and we have no plan for coping with what is happening all around us? What planet, I ask myself as I read this intense, well-crafted stuff, are these people living on? Why aren’t they writing about something important?
  • In film, fiction and music, the recurring theme is finding and losing one’s only true love, about love as a scarce resource and about love’s competitiveness and exclusivity. As someone who is poly, all the angst-filled stories about infidelity and not being able to find or keep “the one” have about as much resonance for me as stories of space aliens in another dimension. And I have given up watching movies because they are either (a) so steeped in the transparently false propaganda of civilization culture that they’re as nauseating to me as Nazi or McCarthyist brainwashing films, or (b) totally designed to provoke mindless adrenaline, dopamine. testosterone or other chemical rushes — the video escapist equivalent of mainlining heroin. It’s all pornography to me, gratuitous and unbearable to watch.
  • I no longer relate to what most people do with their “leisure” time. I just can’t fathom the idea of working 80-hour weeks to save up money to go to some resort or “holiday destination” where you either do nothing, or spend all your time in distracting sports, games, organized tourist trips, spirituality and self-improvement courses or other consumption activities. Nor can I fathom the idea of hitting a white ball around a chemical-soaked, over-watered, sterilized “fairway”, or watching anything on a TV (particularly reality shows where everything is competition and the enjoyment seems to revolve around watching people publicly humiliate themselves).
  • Most blog articles seem to be about consumerist technology, about really bad music, about inane “popular culture”, about mainstream politics, or about what people do for a living. How can people care about new social software tools or about business or education trends or about how Obama is fucking up this week or about what is happening at the latest X-by-YZ conference, when in a few years none of this will matter to anyone, and when the crises our world is facing right now are being ignored?
  • There is pretty compelling evidence that the political and economic systems that are accelerating our collapse are not reformable, and that both personal “green” actions and political activism, while essential responsibilities of each of us, will have only a tiny collective impact in mitigating and/or delaying this collapse. So I have no desire to debate these issues, while even the most intelligent people I know who are still caught within civilization culture seem interested in talking about nothing else but these issues.
  • Knowing what I do now about the damage the education system inflicts and the propaganda it conveys, and the option of unschooling, I would never subject anyone I cared about to the unnecessary trauma of this system. Yet most of the people I know still believe in this system, think it’s the key to change, and seem even to be addicted to it. When will they learn the truth about learning?

I have taken to heart Dark Mountain’s challenge that it is irresponsible, unforgivable, to do any work that is not devoted to the representation of civilization culture for what it really is, or in opposition to the worst manifestations of that culture, or the imagination, preparation and resiliency-building needed to transition to the next, post-collapse culture. But almost no one seems ready for this work, or willing or able to hear its terrible messages, its awful truths.

I’ve been ranting that I’m tired of conversation, and I thought this was because of the inherent limits of our modern languages. But I’m beginning to think it’s not so much the limits of language as that, having rejected every notion of civilization culture, I no longer have anything to talk about with most people.

When I’m out in public I often listen to conversations, and what I hear is nothing but vapid time-wasting, echo-chamber reassurances, regurgitated propaganda, sob stories, unactionable rhetoric, appalling misinformation, self-aggrandizement, gossip, manipulation and denigration of others. I hear no new ideas or insights, no cogent discussion of how we can prepare for, and increase our resilience in the face of, the impending sixth great extinction and the economic, energy and ecological collapses that will push that extinction into overdrive and bring down the most expansive and least sustainable civilization in our species’ short history. And what else is worth talking about?

Yet, all around me, people who have not had the luxury of time and resources, as I have, to learn how the world really works, and what is really going on, and to imagine what we might do about it, and how we might live better, carry on as if nothing much is wrong and as if everything in our unsustainable and doomed culture somehow makes sense, and will somehow continue, and get better.

For much of my life I felt as if I were the one living in another, twilight world, shut off from everybody else, unable to make sense of, connect with and be part of the seemingly exciting world they lived in. But now I feel it is all these people, lost in illusion, who are in the twilight world, the one that makes no sense and has no substance. Part of me wants to rescue them, but part of me knows that they are not ready or able to listen, that their worldview is so utterly different from mine that it is as if we spoke unfathomably different languages.

There is a kind of comfort in learning so much, in being “too far ahead”, in knowing that I am more aware of the terrible truths of this world and of our time, than most people can or will ever be.

But it is a cold and lonely comfort, one suffused with grief and a sense of anomie, rootlessness, purposelessness, directionlessness. As I am reconnecting with all-life-on-Earth I am disconnecting from the culture I have known all my life, and all the people attached to it. It is a bleak and anti-social journey I am on, and knowing that it’s right, and inevitable, and will help me become nobody-but-myself again, is, at this frightening moment, small solace.

July 23, 2010

What Is Your True Song?

Filed under: Our Culture / Ourselves — Dave Pollard @ 14:56

Swainson's Thrush Roland JordahlThe bird pictured at right  (credit Roland Jordahl) is a Swainson’s Thrush, a regular summer visitor here on Bowen Island. Like most birds, it has both “songs” and “calls”. The songs tend to be more melodious and variable — each bird’s is slightly different. The calls are simpler, standard and more abrupt. Here is the song, followed by the call, of the Swainson’s Thrush.

I imagine that songs and calls convey entirely different types of messages. Songs, I think, are a bird’s way of expressing herself — what she feels and who she is. Calls, I would think, are urgent messages to the flock or potential flockmates, such as “come” or “danger”.

Some smarter birds, like the corvids and parrots, are excellent mimics. They have such a vast repertoire of others’ songs and calls (those of other birds, people, animals and even inanimate sounds) that we rarely hear their own song. Yet according to ornithologist Bernd Heinrich, ravens, when alone, will sing themselves to sleep. Only in private moments, perhaps, do they sing their own true song.

There is a theory espoused by some scientists that wild creatures spend the bulk of their lives in “Now Time”, a kind of recursive time-out-of-time that stretches out seemingly forever — what we feel sometimes when we say that “time has stopped”. In these moments out of time, the theory says, these creatures are utterly present, totally a part of the oneness of all-life-on-Earth.

In moments of stress, they quickly snap out of Now Time into Clock Time, when instincts of fight-or-flight kick in, adrenaline pumps, the mind and heart race to keep up with the sudden break-neck pace of time, and all their energies are focused on identifying and responding appropriately to the source of stress.

I imagine that birds’ calls are mostly alerts to shift out of Now Time into Clock Time. Then, once the cause of the stress is gone, the creature quickly re-enters Now Time, with soft clucks of comfort that signal “all clear”, when the creature is free to sing her song once again.

I wonder if the “smarter” creatures on our planet have fewer songs and more calls by virtue of their (our) greater awareness of all the potential dangers and their (our) greater population density (a result of evolutionary success and adaptive skill) — to the point we end up so chronically stressed we never have the opportunity to shift into Now Time. Perhaps we lose the capacity to do so entirely, from lack of opportunity and practice.

This would seem to be the message of many New Age pundits — that we need to find ways and practices to rediscover this presence, slow our lives down to relearn the capacity to enter into Now Time, the seemingly eternal present.

Artists, I think, have this sense, this capacity, more than most others. They seem able to immerse themselves, to open themselves to what is present, to set aside temporarily the pervasive stresses of our civilization and really see, feel, and re-present, what really is. I wonder whether our human languages, designed as they are for the conveyance of commands, instruction and information, are really just elaborate sets of calls, and whether it is in poetry, story, art and music that our human songs find their voice.

As I focus my new life more on creative activities — writing music, stories and poetry — perhaps I am seeking ways to create, or discover, my own song. What nuances and messages would be captured in this song, what expressions of nobody-but-myself? My guess is that it would have notes of joy and others of melancholy, sounds that convey a passion to learn and to play and to imagine what is possible, to reflect and express and explore, and to love. Could a song be subtle enough to convey all this, and even accentuate those passions that I believe I am more (or less) gifted at, and which are “on purpose” for me rather than just for fun?

Perhaps this is what all our conversations, the endless cacophony of words we speak and write and think, are all directed at — expressing, both for our own evolving sense of self and for the discovery of others, who we really are.

What, do you imagine, is your true song?

July 11, 2010

Links and Tweets of the Month: July 11, 2010

Filed under: Preparing for Civilization's End — Dave Pollard @ 23:13

amy lenzo cartoon

cartoon from Amy Lenzo

PREPARING FOR CIVILIZATION’S END

Our Belief Systems at a Turning Point?: Gail at the Oil Drum suggests that the Enron/Worldcomm frauds, the bailout of greedy financial corporations, and now the incompetence and deception of BP and its cohorts have finally pushed the majority of us to a turning point where we no longer believe (a) businesses can ever be trusted to self-regulate or act in the public interest, or (b) technology and innovation will “save” us when we get into trouble. She may be right, but alas, the majority are still far from the turning point of giving up on charismatic leaders, higher powers or the cult of the individual. Only when we re-learn to self-organize, in community, will we start to make the hard transition to a better way to live, one that will give us some resilience to cope with collapse.

What Collapse Will Look Like: Pulitzer-winning NYT reporter Chris Hedges presents a stunning analysis of civilization’s beginning decline, and a portrayal of its ultimate collapse. Excerpt:

The tantalizing illusions offered by our consumer culture are vanishing for most citizens as we head toward collapse. The ability of the corporate state to pacify the country by extending credit and providing cheap manufactured goods to the masses is gone. The jobs we are shedding are not coming back… The belief that democracy lies in the choice between competing brands and the accumulation of vast sums of personal wealth at the expense of others is exposed as a fraud. Freedom can no longer be conflated with the free market. The travails of the poor are rapidly becoming the travails of the middle class, especially as unemployment insurance runs out. And class warfare, once buried under the happy illusion that we were all going to enter an age of prosperity with unfettered capitalism, is returning with a vengeance.

America is sinking under trillions in debt it can never repay and stays afloat by frantically selling about $2 billion in Treasury bonds a day to the Chinese. It saw 2.8 million people lose their homes in 2009 to foreclosure or bank repossessions – nearly 8,000 people a day – and stands idle as they are joined by another 2.4 million people this year. It refuses to prosecute the Bush administration for obvious war crimes, including the use of torture, and sees no reason to dismantle Bush’s secrecy laws or restore habeas corpus. Its infrastructure is crumbling. Deficits are pushing individual states to bankruptcy and forcing the closure of everything from schools to parks. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have squandered trillions of dollars, appear endless. There are 50 million Americans in real poverty and tens of millions of Americans in a category called “near poverty.” One in eight Americans – and one in four children – depend on food stamps to eat. And yet, in the midst of it all, we … continue to embrace the illusion of inevitable progress, personal success and rising prosperity. Reality is not considered an impediment to desire…

The decline of American empire began [when] we saw our country transformed from one that primarily produced to one that primarily consumed. We started borrowing to maintain a level of consumption as well as an empire we could no longer afford. We began to use force, especially in the Middle East, to feed our insatiable thirst for cheap oil. We substituted the illusion of growth and prosperity for real growth and prosperity. The bill is now due. America’s most dangerous enemies are not Islamic radicals but those who sold us the perverted ideology of free-market capitalism and globalization. They have dynamited the very foundations of our society. In the 17th century these speculators would have been hung. Today they run the government and consume billions in taxpayer subsidies…

And yet, even in the face of catastrophe, mass culture continues to assure us that if we close our eyes, if we visualize what we want, if we have faith in ourselves, if we tell God that we believe in miracles, if we tap into our inner strength, if we grasp that we are truly exceptional, if we focus on happiness, our lives will be harmonious and complete. This cultural retreat into illusion, whether peddled by positive psychologists, by Hollywood or by Christian preachers, is magical thinking.

In a second article, Hedges describes the current “Mafia capitalism” and why it is now too late to try to rein in the corporatists who are accelerating the ultimate collapse of industrial civilization in their own, psychotic, short-term interest. [Thanks to Craig De Ruisseau for the first link and Edgerider for the second]

Advice for the Collapse: Hold Cash Now But Be Ready to Convert to Hard Goods: Ilargi explains that, for now, keeping your investments in cash in your local currency makes sense (stocks and bonds do not), but in the longer run, currencies will probably become worthless too. In addition to the hyper-inflation that’s likely to follow the current deflationary spiral, there is the risk of currency reissuance, as governments with crumbling economies simply replace discredited currencies with “new” currencies. By then you need to convert your currency to useful, durable hard goods. Meanwhile Paul Krugman says the Third Depression and a prolonged period of deflation are coming soon.

Renewables Can’t Save Us: Ted Trainer explains why renewable energy sources, taken collectively, and even assuming technology advances continue apace, cannot even begin to replace hydrocarbons, and why a dramatic and sustained plunge in global energy production is therefore inevitable. Thanks to Bowen’s Don Marshall for the link, and the one that follows.

Coping Emotionally With Collapse: Robert Jensen explains that, before we can act with full energy and intention to make the world a better place, we first have to come to grips with the emotional grief that comes with an awareness that collapse and extinction are coming, and that it is our species that is responsible. An elder, responding to Jensen’s request for ideas on how to cope with this grief, said:

I’m about to celebrate my 70th birthday. I live in a rural intentional community, close to land that feeds us and supports us. I’ve lived long enough now to be very aware of how different the world has become, how the cycles of nature are off kilter, how the seasons and the climate have shifted. My garden tells me that food doesn’t grow in quite the same patterns, and we either get weeks of rain or weeks of heat and drought. This is the second year in a row that our apple trees do not have apples on them. But most people get their food in grocery stores where the apples still appear, and food still arrives, in season and out, from all over the world. This will soon end, and people won’t understand why. They don’t see the trouble in the land as I and my friends do. I grieve daily as I look on this altered world. My grandchildren are young adults who think their lives will continue as they have been. Who will tell them? They can’t hear me. They, and many others, will have to see the changes for themselves, as I have. I can’t imagine that anything else will convince them. My grief for the world, and for them, is compounded by this feeling of helplessness because there is no way we can have the collective action you speak of when the ‘collective’ is still in denial.

In a similar vein, Transition’s Sophy Banks explains why support to help cope with this grief is an integral part of the Transition movement (thanks to Tree for that link).

Gulf Sea Floor Ruptured Beyond Repair: Russian scientists working at the scene confirm what the US/UK authorities won’t say: That due to 18 ruptures in the sea floor miles apart, created by the incompetent drilling activities of BP and its corporatist cohorts and government lackeys, the BP oil “spill” will never stop, and cannot be contained [Mother Jones has more detail on this -- thanks to Johnny Moore for the MJ link]. This blot on the environment will join the post-Katrina remains of New Orleans as icons of the unsustainability of Industrial Civilization. Thanks to Jerry Michalski for the link, and the one that follows.

An Economist Explains How the US Economy Has Been Permanently Hollowed Out: Henry Mintzberg: “A recent Gallup poll suggested that 55% of the American workforce is not engaged and another 16% is actively disengaged. Perhaps this is best explained by the relentless downsizing of the large American companies… Those left behind, with trust lost in their ‘leadership,’ have been inclined to put down their heads, cover their tails, and soldier on until they burned out or were themselves downsized.”

And a Non-Economist Explains How Economics Really Works: Joe Bageant provides a scathing and hilarious summing-up of economics. Excerpt:

The doomers and the peak oilers gag, and they call it American denial. Personally, I think it is somewhat unfair to say that most Americans and Canadians are in denial. They simply don’t have a fucking clue about what is really happening to them and their world. Everything they have been taught about working, money and “quality of life” constitutes the planet’s greatest problem — overshoot. Understanding this trashes our most basic assumptions, and requires a complete reversal in contemporary thought and practice about how we live in the world. When was the last time you saw any individual, much less an entire nation, do that?

Compounding our ignorance and naiveté are the officials and experts, politicians, media elites, and especially economists, who interpret the world for us and govern the course of things. The go-to guys. They don’t know either. But they’ve got the lingo down. Somehow or other, it all has to do with the economy, which none of us understands, despite round the clock media jabbering on the subject. Somehow it has to do with this great big spring on Wall Street called “the market” that’s gotta be kept wound up, and interest rates at something called The Fed, which have got to be kept smunched down. The industry of crystal gazing and hairball rubbing surrounding these entities is called economics.

Rich Walk Away from Mortgages, Poor Keep Paying: Most poor and middle-class Americans are still paying off mortgages, some of them much greater than the value of their homes, in the hope that prices will recover. The rich, backed by armies of overpaid morality-free lawyers who can find ways to creditor-proof their other assets, are instead walking away from their “underwater” mortgages in droves — and hence becoming even richer.

Embodying Action: Vera Bradova suggests a pathway from inaction, to either earnest outward action (conventional “political” activism) or what she calls  lifestylism (“green quietism”, caught up in the minutiae of political wrangling), to what she calls “embodied action” (including and moving from personal to political activism). “The path of embodiment, of incarnating my values and desires in my flesh-and-blood being, leads then organically into action which is infused by those values and desires.” In a related post, she explains the broad appeal of the Transition Movement.

LIVING BETTER

An Alternative to Open Space?: South African facilitator Allan Kaplan explains an intriguing and involved approach to facilitating groups dealing with complex situations, focused on continuous probing and provoking the group to greater and greater depths of collective insight. It appears to be quite a bit more hands-on than Open Space and other approaches to complex issues, and is based around a challenging series of questions each group must address, that emerges from the direction of the discussions and insights revealed. Based on the work of Goethe, it is called the Proteus approach. Anyone tried this? Thanks to David Derauf for the link.

A Potential Supreme Court Judge of Exceptional Quality: Jonathan Rauch provides a look at the nuanced  and savvy judgement of Elena Kagan and explains why he supports her despite her unwillingness to be a judicial advocate for gay marriage. The US Supreme Court might actually become functional and relevant again if it had more judges like her and fewer corporatist cronies and louts like Clarence Thomas.

Haitians Reject Monsanto Seeds: Haitians, although desperate for seeds in their storm- and earthquake-ravaged country, had the good sense to just say No to the “gift” of patented, invasive, chemical-dependent seeds of Monsanto, one of the world’s worst corporatist scourges. Thanks to Tree for the link.

POLITICS AND ECONOMICS AS USUAL

What Happens When Cities and States Go Bankrupt: The thousands of municipalities and states in the US are now, mostly, either insolvent or bankrupt. Like the big banks, they will be considered “too big to fail” and will be rescued by a federal government that will print yet more trillions of dollars to fund the bailouts, until finally the world cries “enough” and refuses to accept unrepayable US debt any longer. In the meantime, services will be slashed, bills will remain unpaid for months at a time (as happened in the Soviet Union before its collapse), but, not by accident, taxes will not be raised to help cope with the deficits. The NYT explains why this can and will be allowed to happen.

Obama Condones Arbitrary and Criminal Torture of Canadian: The Obama administration has compounded the utterly disgraceful and contemptuous treatment of Canadian torture victim Maher Arar. The only thing more disgraceful is that the Canadian government puts up with this abuse of one of its citizens.

putangitangi by pohangina pete

putangitangi female, from the camera of the remarkable photographer (and friend) pohangina pete

FUN AND INSPIRATION

Bonnie Stewart tells of relationships lost, and, perhaps, found. Her writing is amazing.

Artists, Raise Your Weapons: My latest post on Dark Mountain describes Derrick Jensen’s and Stephanie McMillan’s recent provocations for artists to become more activist, and to eschew all activities not directly focused at fighting against industrial civilization. And I was very pleased to be mentioned by the Dark Mountain founders on their blog, for my earlier post on the role of artists in re-presenting the collapse of civilization and imagining better ways to live.

Cirque Phenix mixes dance and circus acrobatics to dazzling effect. Thanks to Dawn Smith for the link.

Eric Whitaker’s virtual choir. Lots more of his great compositions here. Thanks to Tree for the link.

David Foster Wallace predicted in his novel Infinite Jest that the kind of wifi videophone functionality in the new iPhone 4 would fail to catch on, according to Jason Kottke. We’ll see. Thanks to Chris Lott for the link.

Two by humourist Andy Borowitz: BP develops technology to convert lies into energy; and Angered by steroid accusations Lance Anderson throws car at reporter

THOUGHTS FOR THE MONTH

From Siona Van Dijk:

These days the present feels wrong. These days I feel wistful for the future, for moments of greater chaos when either we or our chlidren’s children will look back and laugh aghast at what we chose today to dramatize, at our naive concerns about the world, at our tragicomic headlines (so quaint! so misguided!) and fears. I feel wistful for a future as distant as we are from the ancients, one in which all that we consider known and true is wrong. i feel wistful for a future that contains nobody.

From Sheldon Kopp  (thanks to Tree for this quote and the one that follows): “The most difficult part of loving is learning to tolerate the helplessness we feel in the face of a loved one’s suffering.”

From Fred LaMotte: “Sometimes we aren’t called to heal a family member or a sea turtle, or to change them, or to lay on some slick enlightenment: but just to be present to their pain. This is difficult, because it requires humility.”

From Wendell Berry’s The Peace of Wild Things ( <– please watch the video — simple and stunning):

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

July 6, 2010

Living In Our Own Worlds

Filed under: Preparing for Civilization's End — Dave Pollard @ 12:54

vermeer

Vermeer’s artist, from ibiblio.org

We are social creatures for a reason: It improves the likelihood of our survival. Together we can do things we could never accomplish alone. Culture, the shared beliefs and behaviours of a group of people working collaboratively, is powerful (though alas, that power, when co-opted by charismatic or psychopathic individuals, gangs or elites, can be terribly destructive and dangerous).

Just as we are part of a culture (and/or subcultures and/or “alternative” cultures), we are also a part of a greater whole, the organism of all-life-on-Earth, which has collectively self-regulated for more than a billion years to optimize the survival, diversity and joy of our lives.

And we are, in turn, made up of organisms, which have given us the illusion of being a single creature by evolving a collective “consciousness”. That collective consciousness is extremely useful, allowing the organisms that make up “us” to act “single-mindedly” (especially useful in times of fight-or-flight crisis).

So we are constantly processing three sets of messages that produce three different worldviews of who we are:

  1. Messages from our component organisms, both conscious (directed through our brains) and subconscious (instinctive, programmed and somatic).
  2. Messages from our culture, telling us who “we” are, what to believe and what to do.
  3. Messages from the global organism (“gaia”) telling us how to adjust our behaviour and adapt to changes for the optimal well-being and balance of all life on the planet.

There is a huge amount of dissonance between these messages. For example, our component organisms (preoccupied with “our” own survival and procreation) might be telling us to make overtures to someone we find sexually attractive, while our culture might be telling us that such overtures are socially inappropriate in the circumstances and should be avoided, and while gaia is telling us that, in light of the horrific overpopulation of humans on our planet, we should not procreate and should be focused on rebalancing the world instead of preoccupied with our personal appetites.

When we fall in love, this dissonance is temporarily resolved in favour of the messages from our component organisms, as our body’s chemistry takes control of us. But only for a while – soon enough, the terrible dissonance returns.

For many of us, I think, this dissonance is paralyzing; it renders us ill, physically and mentally, and ultimately we get exhausted trying to handle it so we become desensitized, shut down. Such behaviour has been observed in rats subjected to severe protracted overpopulation stresses: the alphas become violent and sexually aggressive and hoard scarce resources, while the rest become mentally ill, withdrawn, and suicidal, and many eat their own young.

As a result, I think, when this dissonance becomes overwhelming we tend to dissociate, to start to retreat into and live in our own world, in our head, where we can ignore these conflicting messages and the unsettling and confusing behaviour of the increasingly anonymous crowd around us. We end up telling ourselves oversimplified stories about who we are, and what we’re supposed to do, and ignoring our instincts, our bodies, our senses, our emotions, our physical reality, and people with ideas and beliefs different from our own.

So when I walk down a city street, I don’t really “see” anyone, nor do they really see me. They are, I suspect, accepting as “true”, and engaged by, “news” that I see as nothing but lies and oversimplifications. They are, I tell myself, amused and entertained by “popular” books, music, films and “programming” that I find inane, cultural propaganda, or just plain wrong. The conversations and recreations that seem to enthrall and entrance them, I find meaningless, vapid, unforgivably stupid and a waste of time that, I think, should be spent dealing with the looming crises of our century.

Of course, I can’t really know. We are all, despite our a-part-ness, ultimately utterly alone. We may live in the same place, walk the same streets, but it is as if we all live in different universes.

How can we hope to achieve community when our physical neighbourhoods consist mostly of exhausted people with utterly irreconcilable and profoundly conflicted worldviews, living in private, separate worlds inside their heads? When we live in such an atomized society, how can we really know anyone else, enough to be able to perceive more than an idealized, abstract, outline view of who we think they are, or wish them to be?

And if we don’t know them, how can we care about them or what they believe or do? This is the crux of this dissociation, this disconnection from community and gaia and even our own bodies: we can only care about what, and who, we know.

And what hope is there in this isolated tumult to be able to find the right partners for the life we’re meant to live and the work we’re meant to do? What hope is there, really, to even inform others of what we know about how the world really works, or help them imagine a better way to live, when there is no shared context of reality, of community, and of caring to enable any meaningful communication to occur?

Over on Dark Mountain we’re debating our role as artists in re-presenting the world as it really is and imagining it as it might be. I recently posted an article there asking whether our role is merely to do our job as artists – to put our writing and art out there – or whether we have a responsibility to articulate it in a way that is accessible and understandable and hence actionable to the world.

But I wonder whether the latter is even possible when we’re all living in our own worlds, and whether the perception we have of being a part of social groups, the perceptions of intimacy and belonging and connection are just self-delusions, wishful thinking. With this technology that allows us to have a thousand “friends”, do we really have any at all, or is the friendship of others just something we convince ourselves we have because without it our lives would be unbearably lonely?

As I mention in my Dark Mountain post, Derrick Jenson in this month’s Orion berates us for not doing enough, and specifically for doing anything that does not contribute to the urgent task of trying to save our world from collapse, labeling such activities as “unforgivable”. In the article he cites an essay by cartoonist Stephanie McMillan that asserts:

In times like these, for an artist not to devote her/his talents and energies to creating cultural weapons of resistance is a betrayal of the worst magnitude, a gesture of contempt against life itself. It is unforgivable… Let us not be the system’s tools or fools. Artists are not cowards and weaklings — we’re tough. We take sides. We fight back…

It is our duty and responsibility to create a fierce, unyielding, aggressive culture of resistance. We must create art that exposes and denounces evil, that strengthens activists and revolutionaries, celebrates and contributes to the coming liberation of this planet from corporate industrial military omnicidal madness.

Pick up your weapon, artist.

Once we’ve learned the truth about this terrible world, is it our responsibility to devote the rest of our lives, every waking moment of our lives, to the work of fighting to prevent it getting worse? Or should we give ourselves a break and allow ourselves time to simply enjoy the wonders of the world and life and love? How much time?

And how far does our responsibility extend beyond doing what we must, what we do well, and what we enjoy doing? What should we do about the billions lost in their own worlds of ignorance and denial and distraction who are not ready to listen or change and never will be until it’s too late, and who are, collectively and indifferently, killing the world we love, even as those who know better and who are listening are working to save it?

How can we let them go on? And if we can’t, how can we stop them?

Lots of questions, for each of us – activists, healers, artists, facilitators, innovators, researchers, builders and connectors – to answer, in our own way. And wonder, as we struggle to reconnect, and to acknowledge our complexity and the astonishing ability of all-life-on-Earth to self-organize in our collective self-interest, just what is possible, now.

July 1, 2010

Bowen in Transition

Filed under: Preparing for Civilization's End — Dave Pollard @ 01:18

Last weekend I attended the Transition Movement 2-day introductory training course in Vancouver, along with three fellow Bowen Islanders. We immediately and unanimously agreed to establish a “Bowen in Transition” chapter, affiliated with the Vancouver Transition network (called Village Vancouver).

For those who might want to know a bit more about the Transition Movement, here’s an overview of what we learned, along with a rough first cut at how we might adapt it to the needs of Bowen Island, where I now live.

The first part of the course provided the facts about our unsustainable energy, ecological and economic systems, and outlined the main elements of the ever-evolving processes and activities that communities around the world are including in their Transition programs. It also outlined why it is so important for communities to  have a Transition program. Here’s a draft of a graphic that we might use to explain the purpose and key elements of a Transition program to the community of Bowen Island:

Bowen in Transition 1

(click on any of the graphics in this article to see them full size — these are working drafts only and have not been approved by anyone)

We learned how the nature and composition of the Working Groups in any particular community will evolve to meet the unique needs of that community, and why it is unwise to try to formalize or top-down manage the Transition process using the initiating team’s preconceptions of what’s best for the particular community.

Next, we talked about the Principles behind the Transition movement, and our facilitators provided some insights for Transition program initiators about how to get traction in the community (make it fun, keep to the main messages) and how to deal with skeptics and deniers (just tell them you respect their ideas and move on; don’t waste time arguing with those not ready to listen). Here are the principles:

Bowen in Transition 2

A significant amount of time was spent on the Visioning process – specifically getting your community to envision what life would be like (and how it would be different) if a Transition and Resilience program were developed now. I’m a great believer in future state visioning and scenario development as a means of getting people to really understand the purpose and value of acting now, and I was encouraged that the latest book by the Transition movement organizers is mostly focused on this visioning, and specifically on developing a timeline for future events, and how the Transition program can address, mitigate and help adapt to these future events.

Here’s a first cut at a future state scenario for Bowen Island (by contrast, Bowen is currently one of the most unsustainable and least prepared places for the challenges we face, that I know of):

Bowen in Transition 3

What is missing here, I think, is the alternative business-as-usual scenario (with a few black swan events thrown in) to demonstrate why inaction is not an option. I’m hoping we’ll do that in the Bowen program.

Another thing missing is a process to help people bridge from the necessary but insufficient personal actions they are taking now, to the more comprehensive approach the Transition program embodies. Here’s an example of how one UK Transition Town (sorry, I’m not sure which one) is building that bridge, as we might adapt it to Bowen’s plan; this is all about encouraging people to continue personal actions rather than simply telling them what they’re doing is not good enough (and risking turning them off):

Bowen in Transition 4

There is lots more in the Training for Transition course, which I understand is now being taught in countries all over the world. Much of the remainder of the course is focused on (i) the “heart and soul” issue (dealing with, and helping others deal with, the grief and sense of hopelessness that overwhelms many when they realize what is at stake and how hard the task ahead is, and (ii) how to initiate a Transition program in your community, traps to avoid, how to engage others, and how to “trust the process” to run without centralized management or hierarchy.

There were four issues that came up for me during the training, that were either very surprising or remain unresolved in my mind on how to deal with them; if anyone has any experience or thoughts on them, I’d welcome your comments:

1. The degree to which the program depends on acceptance of the Myth of Causality (that changes in beliefs will necessarily produce changes in behaviour and hence changes in results achieved by the program). My concern is that in many cases in complex systems I don’t think belief change is sufficient to bring about behaviour change, nor is behaviour change always sufficient to bring about significantly different results from business as usual. For example, many people have come to accept that significant climate change risks lie ahead, but believe there is nothing they can do, or that it’s governments’ job to “fix” the problem.

2. The claim that there is a Tipping Point beyond which a community consensus on the validity of assumptions and actions is sufficient to basically blow away the skeptics and deniers, and produce broad-based support for even radical projects and programs based on those assumptions or actions. The numbers tossed out for this Tipping Point were 15-20% of the population. I’m not so sure this is enough. In the US, a majority favour universal publicly-run health care and publicly-funded election campaigns, among many other progressive ideals, but inertia, and campaigns by a small but wealthy and powerful minority, have prevented any of these widely-supported changes from occurring.

3. How do we deal with the enormous challenges that we face in any attempt to bring about radical change quickly:

  • most people’s addiction to the status quo (oil use, consumption and debt),
  • endemic learned helplessness, fostered by those in power,
  • most people’s sheer “busy-ness”, fear of insolvency, fear of unemployment, and fear of “not having enough” that prevents them working on anything other than family commitments and their exhausting jobs (working mostly for unsustainable employers)
  • the propensity of anyone whose power is threatened to act quickly and violently to stop the change (Charles Handy, business consulting guru, famously said “No one willingly gives up power”), and
  • Pollard’s Law, that says that despite what we believe should be done, it is human nature to exhaust all our time and energy doing what we have absolutely no choice not to do, doing what’s easy, and doing what’s fun; most Transition work doesn’t qualify by those criteria, and so it remains for most just a good intention, even among those who “get” the need for Transition.

4. My astonished realization that most young people attending the Transition training do not seem to feel the degree of grief, pessimism, and hopelessness that pervades the “heart and soul” of the boomers (who tend to make up the majority of Transition leaders, from what I gather). What is behind this generation gap – boomers’ exhaustion and cynicism, or young people’s naivety?

I think these four issues are absolutely critical to the success of the Transition Movement beyond its current early stages. Nevertheless, the momentum the movement has is remarkable, and it’s catching on all over the globe.

More on the subject of Transition as we move forward with our Bowen program.

Thanks to the course leaders Lena Soots and Bill Aal, their support staff, and all my fellow Transition training participants, especially Bowen’s Carol MacKinnon, Don Marshall, and Bob Turner.

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